I doubt anybody would disagree that Mario is easily one of the most well-known, if not the most well-known video game character of all time. The Italian plumber has served as Nintendo’s mascot for decades, and has starred in a staggering number of games since he was introduced as “Jumpman” in the original Donkey Kong.
Yet who is Mario?
I got to thinking about this recently, for a few reasons. Partly because of an interview wherein Miyamoto mentioned that he told the Splatoon devs to use Mario as the protagonist if they couldn’t come up with and original character. Yes, their go-to character was Mario.
But Mario isn’t really a character. He’s more of a mascot, if anything. He has no personality and no real flaws. His entire character can be boiled down to “plumber who saves princess peach.” He is never developed, he is never explored, he is never seen as anything other than a player character.
Is this necessarily bad? Not really. A children’s video game character doesn’t really need to be anything more than a sprite or model on the screen. But it starts to worry me mostly because of the sheer number of games Mario has starred in, and the idea that he is Nintendo’s go-to character when they don’t have another character they wanna use.
Video game writing is a constant source of debate, and it’s a well-known fact that it generally kinda sucks. But it doesn’t have to. There are definitely games with well-developed characters who have fleshed out personalities and interesting character flaws. But these are a rarity. Not because it’s hard to write good characters, but because people are so used to the idea that we don’t have to.
Many games feature generic protagonists with no emotions or defining features, who have no real personality or character aside from “is protagonist, kills things.” Even games with defined characters don’t really go out of their way to develop them. Why? Because our baseline for video game protagonists is so low that many don’t feel the need to develop characters beyond that.
Am I suggesting Nintendo needs to develop Mario more? Not at all. I think Mario is fine as he is, and I honestly don’t know that I’d want Nintendo to develop him more. But I do feel like Nintendo needs to stop relying on him so much, and forcing him into every game they possibly can. Because Nintendo has a wide range of characters who are more developed, just within the Mario franchise.
Luigi? He’s a coward who is always in his brother’s shadow, but he has shown that he can stand up for himself when he absolutely has to. Wario? He’s a greedy scumbag who will do anything for money, and has shown that he has no remorse scamming people out of their hard-earned cash. I can’t even begin to count the numerous potential characters from spin-offs like Warioware or Paper Mario, and there are far, far more characters from other established Nintendo franchises. So much so that they have a fighting game series dedicated to them
And yet, when Nintendo has a game that needs a protagonist, their go-to character is Mario. Every year, Nintendo will put out massive amounts of games branded with Mario, starring Mario, where you play as Mario. Despite the large number of characters they could use, their default is always Mario.
And if the industry is going to get better at developing characters, this needs to change. The face of the industry, the one who shows up in hundreds of games and is the reference everybody else draws from, needs to be more than a blank slate. Nintendo needs to make use of more characters, and stop slapping Mario onto everything.
For the industry to move on, the plumber needs to go